1996 | Baz Luhrmann
Opening with a series of rapid cuts as the Chorus (in this case a news reporter) lays our scene, we are introduced to Baz Luhrmann’s stylish modernization of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Verona has been changed to Verona Beach, an affluent city influenced by LA, swords and daggers have been replaced with guns (with nicknames such as “Longsword” and “Dagger”) and dialogue is spoken verbatim from the original.
It is a brave experiment, one which feels like it may have benefited from a director with a better understanding of the text and more of an understanding of Shakespeare in general. Luhrmann’s sense of style is precisely what the film needs, but the rapid pacing, exaggerated performances and amazing art direction lead to an ultimately bombastic bombardment of visual extravagance, which is impressive at first, but Luhrmann’s lack of finesse is detrimental to the film itself.
The extravagance never ceases, but the rapid pacing slows to an almost halt as the romance of Romeo and Juliet begins, their first encounter lasting almost as long as the four or five scenes which came before it. It is hard to describe a Shakespeare adaptation as lacking depth, but the lack of exploration into subtext and the over-emphasis on theatrical style ensures Romeo + Juliet will never be anything more than a memorable experiment with fantastic production design.
The performances are all great for the style of filmmaking, and Catherine Martin’s production design is not only a fitting tribute to the usual extravagance of a Shakespearean play, but also fantastic for the over-the-top filmmaking style of a Baz Luhrmann/William Shakespeare “collaboration.” Due to the quality of the text itself, it could be seen as an adaptation which directs itself, so it is hard for one to fault Luhrmann for undertaking such a challenging endeavour. But again, the film feels like it would have been a much better film in the hands of someone with the same sense of extravagance, but a tighter reign and more control.
It is incredibly hard to nail a film like this, and Luhrmann does an admirable job of attempting to construct the post enjoyable film possible, but unfortunately it meanders where it shouldn’t, races through some of its most compelling parts, and brushes over the text as if it is nothing more than words on a page.